Meet the new GM of CNCF – Priyanka Sharma

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CNCF, a Linux Foundation project, recently appointed Priyanka Sharma as its new GM. As a long time expert of cloud native technologies Sharma brings unique vision and insights to the organization. On behalf of the Linux Foundation, Swapnil Bhartiya, founder and producer at TFiR talked to Sharma to better understand the vision she has for CNCF and what goals she has set for herself and the foundation.

Here is the transcript of our interview.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Hi, this is Swapnil Bhartiya. Today, we have with us Priyanka Sharma. Now she’s in the role of general manager of CNCF. Priyanka, first of all, welcome to the show in your new role.

Priyanka Sharma: Thank you so much for having me, Swapnil.

Swapnil Bhartiya: What exactly is the role of GM at CNCF, and how different is it from the role of executive director that Dan used to have there?

Priyanka Sharma: No difference at all, actually. I am stepping into the role Duncan had. Across the LF, various projects and some foundations have different titles for the leadership, and me being a GM is really giving a nod to trying to consolidate everything as one title, so that’s really where it comes from, it’s the same job.

Swapnil Bhartiya: If you look at CNCF now, it has played a very critical role in creating a home for cloud native technologies like Kubernetes, and now there are so many … I mean the landscape is so huge you cannot even see it, which also mean that a lot of consolidation within CNCF has to happen from the point of view of a lot of projects are overlapping, a lot of projects have gaps. What are your thoughts about that?

Priyanka Sharma: Yes. Absolutely. I actually think it’s a great thing. By charter, the CNCF does not intend to be a kingmaker. We are very different, I guess, from any other foundations in that we really focus on spreading the wave of cloud native for helping the ecosystem build better software quicker and more resiliently. For that, there are multiple tools people can use. They may use option A for telemetry versus option B for reasons that are specific to their system. And we don’t want to be getting into the middle of that. We want to support every solid, good project out there with a neutral IP space, open governance, best practices, support with marketing education, etc. It’s actually a good thing for the end users to have choice, and we enable that.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Right. If you look at CNCF, I think it’s like ’13, ’14, it’s been four or five years since the organization has been around, a lot of projects under the foundation have kind of matured. The ecosystem itself has matured. There are a lot of companies who are doing … and things are moving from testing to production. And there is a very healthy ecosystem there. What role is cloud CNCF playing today for the ecosystem, and how do you see the evolution of CNCF itself?

Priyanka Sharma: Great question. A few things. First off is yes, we’ve made great progress. The first wave of cloud native has gone exceptionally well. 2016, when I joined this ecosystem as a project contributor to open tracing, we were still talking about what are microservices, why you need to do cloud computing, very basic, right? And since then, a lot has changed, which is awesome. However, with new maturity, comes new complexity, and that’s why you see we are still accepting new projects, right, to support the entire development cycle.

In addition, there’s the crossing the chasm, as they say, for various technologies and projects. Kubernetes is definitely crossing the chasm right now, but we have not just 1 but 10 graduated projects, including Kubernetes. We are supporting all of those projects to also cross the chasm. We need to also make Kubernetes more widespread. If you notice, most KubeCons that happen, which are our flagship events, I think at least 25% of the audience each year is brand new first timers.

We actually were having conversation just a few hours back today about don’t underestimate the importance and need for consistent cloud native one on one nurturing. The job is far from done. We need to go deeper with developer engagement. We need to go deeper with end user engagement now that we have made some headway. The second wave of cloud native is just starting.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Excellent. Now when we look at second wave, so far the ride has become kind of easy breeze. But what are the challenges that you see that you want to tackle as you move into the second wave? Or what kind of challenges you’re setting for yourself, which are not the easy one, but you see there is a demand so that you have to do that?

Priyanka Sharma: I had various thoughts and ideas around this stuff. And when I was going to join the organization, I was going to take a complete few months to do a listening tour. Of course you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men, the pandemic hit. The world scenario has completely changed. There’s been shelter-in-place orders various places. People are suffering many places with illness. There is the COVID illness. And then there’s other things that come up and you’re stuck at home for so long, so it’s not an easy time. It’s not a normal time. It’s not a usual time. And that reflects for the cloud native community as well. As an example, we’ve hosted the KubeCons, our flagship events in person with great fanfare, with lots of support, love and excitement from the community.

Now, we have to pivot completely and do it all online in a world where the online solutions are sort of catching up to be able to support large scale events like ours. So joining in, there are challenges that have been thrown my way by just the timing, right? In addition to the events which we’re working very hard on as a team, there is also just your community has different needs. There’s some people may want to be switching jobs or looking for jobs. That’s one element that we need to think about. Some people may need the support that they felt otherwise by going to meet ups, by being more in touch with people around them on cloud native. There are others whose businesses actually might be growing exponentially just because everything’s going online, just supporting them with the technology. There are various elements to this new, strange time that we find ourselves in. So that is a big challenge.

In addition, I would say Dan and Chris have built an amazing, massively impactful organization. For me, I intend to keep this momentum going, to keep building on what they have created. We all stand on the shoulders of giants here. I think the next big thing once we get through pandemic is to double down on the end user ecosystem. The end users have grown and become consistently more sophisticated and technical over the times in the last four years I’ve been involved. We need to support that and enable greater adoption, better insights, safe spaces to discuss and communicate with each other, so that’s coming.

And then finally, as I said, developer education and engagement has to go deeper and wider. That’s what I set for myself.

Swapnil Bhartiya: When you look at CNCF, what vision do you have? Because you yourself have been in the community, in the industry for so long, but you were also on the outside. You are not inside Linux Foundation. You have been working with private companies, so you have an outsider’s view. What unique vision did you bring to the CNCF? Because sometimes when we work within an organization for so long, we have our own myopic view. Can you talk about that?

Priyanka Sharma: You’re absolutely right, that I have worn multiple hats, seen CNCF through different lenses, and I can bring that perspective to this foundation. I’d say one thing that’s been a somewhat disturbing trend I notice was this othering of different parts of the community. It’s like CNCF staff versus end user versus project creator versus GB versus this. You can have so many different categories. But the reality is I really don’t think that’s the way the ecosystem truly functions well I don’t think there’s that much meat in that way of thinking. And we need to change and go back to what we’re good at, which is being builders and doers and being team cloud native, all of us together.

If we in fight, then we don’t stand strong and build upon our work, but rather just dissipate energy. And I’ve seen that trend happen in cloud native. I cannot speculate on the reasons for it, but I make a call to each and every one of you, just know we’re in it together. I have worn multiple hats in this industry. I have been a project contributor. I have been an educator, a marketer. I have been a developer advocate. I have been a governing board member. I have done many things. And now, I’m the GM. Let me tell you, we are all in it together no matter what hat we wear, and we need to make an extra effort to do that. And that is something I think will be a big change if we can achieve it.

Swapnil Bhartiya: You can have as much GitHub repository for tech issues. But what realistic efforts we can see from CNCF to kind of achieve the kind of vision you are bringing, because this is kind of different than a technological problem?

Priyanka Sharma: I hear that. I think that a lot of it starts with the leadership. I have been put in this position and my number one goal is to always keep my door open, these days virtually. I live by an open calendar. Anybody can book time with me, talk to me, tell me what you think, and reach out to me. And I mean it. I have serious blocks open. Of course, they’re starting to get booked up really quickly, which is nice because that means people are taking me up on this offer, that let’s engage. Let’s talk it out. Let’s see where we are disagreeing, and either agree to disagree, which is a totally fair thing to do, or come closer together in some form of consensus.

I think conversation is the first step. We all get so busy with the day-to-day work, that that goes away to the wayside. And when that happens, miscommunication just develops and deepens. So number one is open door policy. Let’s talk. Whenever there’s confusion, let’s do that.

The other is bringing greater transparency. It’s just a habit I have that I picked up at GitLab working under Sid, which is being all remote, it’s important to document everything. So most of my meetings, they will have a document where we write down agenda notes, etc. Sharing that with the people you talk to so everyone’s actually on the same page. We wrote this down. This is what we’re doing. Little things like that can I think go a really long way in making sure people are moving in lockstep together. All this is also, by the way, an ongoing effort that you cannot let up. You have to keep being transparent. You have to keep being open. This is not a onetime thing. People have to keep being transparent. People have to keep their door open. It’s an ongoing effort that I will not stop and let up on. I think it will make a difference.

I’m actually proud to report that I’m already seeing, having taken the time to talk to a lot of people, we really are on the same team. Everyone wants us to just build better software together, and I’m very confident that the cultural change is happening as we speak.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Awesome. Before we dive this last question, we are going through a crisis, a very serious crisis, and we don’t see any end in the sight right now. It has impacted all of us. For example, we were supposed to be in person at open source event, but everything is moving to online events. How does this impact the industry in general? Because a lot of these events, they do bring people together, where they not only hallway track, where people just touch base with colleagues, but a lot of … actually, a lot of partnerships are forged there. What impact do you see, and how do you see CNCF would respond to that or is already responding to that?

Priyanka Sharma: Absolutely. Events play a great role in the community and ecosystem, and that’s just evidenced by the awesomeness of KubeCons. Being at every KubeCon that I could be had open doors for me. Connected me to people who were happy to mentor, guide, talk to me. We cannot lose that, right? We all are waiting for things to change, right? The pandemic to go away one day for us to be able to meet in person. While we wait for that, here and the CNCF team, we are working to make KubeCon EU virtual in August as awesome of an experience as possible. There’s lots of ideas that we have. We sometimes have technology limitations in terms of the platforms that are available, and we’re trying to work through that.

My sense is that we’ll have a bunch of ideas in experiment at KubeCon EU in August, and by the time KubeCon North America, which was going to be Boston, but just today was announced is going to be virtual as well, by the time that rolls around, I think we’ll have a lot more cool engagement and innovation possible.

I did a small event a few weeks before joining CNCF, just for fun. I just wanted to see other community folks. And the reality is that it was cool because we were able to livestream, and we’d expected 200 people, but 2,000 showed up. No, actually, 7,000 at maximum views. It was crazy, crazy numbers. And that’s the equalizer that comes with online events. It’s nice to be able to reach more people. We have to figure out the engagement, have more fun games and trivia prizes, ways to connect a maintainer to someone who has a question, ways to connect a student to someone who will tell them how to contribute. These are the things we need to work on and it’s actively underway.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Awesome. Thank you, Priyanka, so much for taking time out and talking to me today, and I look forward to talk to you again. Thank you.

Priyanka Sharma: Same here. Thank you, Swapnil.